HBO’s Game of Thrones – As Good As The Book?

Game of Thrones is the title of the first book in a yet to be finished fantasy series by George R.R. Martin, entitled A Song Of Fire And Ice. Game Of Thrones is also a recently released game on 360 and PS3, a board game, a card game, a tabletop role playing game, a graphic novel, the subject of several iOS and Google Play apps, and an upcoming Facebook game. It’s also one of the hottest IP’s around right now, thanks largely in part to the wildly popular HBO program currently airing its second season, as well as the DVD/Blu-ray release of the Emmy and Golden Globe winning first season, available now.

I’ll be honest. I’m a proponent of the tenet that the book is always better than the movie. Only in the cases where the book was written first, that is. If it says “The novelization based on the film” on the cover, then it’s kindling. I’m snooty that way. Even when I know that the book is better, because it’s always better, I’m still occasionally drawn to see a film adaptation. Maybe it’s because a friend, or naive critic, says something like, “every bit as good as the book.” Sometimes it’s because I’m such a fan of the source material that I have to see how they butcher it with my own eyes.

Either way, whenever I see a film based on a book I’ve read, I always have one of three reactions: 1) Pleasantly surprised (i.e. Fight Club, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile). 2) Decidedly indifferent (Trainspotting, Stephen King’s It,). 3) Desporrified, a made-up word combining despair and horrified (Breakfast of Champions, everything else Stephen King’s let become a movie that’s not already listed here). In every case, whether surprised, indifferent or desporrified, I still come away thinking the book is superior to the film in every way. Until Game of Thrones that is. Now my worldview has been shattered.

To HBO’s credit, the show remains very true to the source material, differing on only the very slightest of details. Much of the dialogue is straight from the novel, and in retrospect the pacing of the book is almost ideal for screenwriting. This may be due to Martin’s previous work as a television writer, most notably for the mid-80′s revival of The Twilight Zone. From the outset, the show seems to focus on Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. Early on in the series, he’s tapped by his old friend Robert Baratheon, who has become King of the Seven Kingdoms, to help him rule as the king’s top advisor, the Hand. Over the course of 10 episodes we’re introduced to a myriad of nobles, charlatans, rogues and scoundrels, but at the close of season one it is apparent that the only real stars of the show are intrigue, the machinations of the court, and the things people will do while chasing power. Of course while people play their game, the shadow of a larger threat looms. Winter is coming.

It’s hard to deny that the show is outstanding, as evidenced by the aforementioned Emmy and Golden Globe wins in Outstanding Drama Series and Best Television Series-Drama respectively. The casting is superb, and includes Peter Dinklage, who also won an Emmy for his portrayal of Tyrion Lannister, and Sean Bean as Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark. Bean is probably best known for his portrayal of Boromir in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Ringstrilogy (Pleasantly surprised on that one, if you’re keeping track).

The cinematography is excellent as well, and adds a visual element somewhat lacking in the books. Martin’s writing is focused primarily on the characters, and flowery descriptions of the environments are few and far between. Largely shot in Northern Ireland and Malta, the sets and supporting shots are beautiful, and bring to life the keeps and castles in a way that Martin himself doesn’t.

Although jokingly described as “The Sopranos in Middle-earth” by series co-creator David Benioff, the description is quite apt. Like Tolkien’s trilogy, Game of Thrones would have to be considered “high fantasy” due to the presence of creatures of myth and mystical/magical elements. However these things play more in the background of Martin’s books, as well as the show, with Game of Thrones leaning more towards the Middle Ages than Middle-earth. The Sopranos comparison is a little more apt. Like it, and many other HBO shows, Game of Thrones is decidedly adult. Nudity and gratuitous violence abound throughout the series, and are the only real source of complaint voiced by critics of the show. However, if you’re looking for a show that has all the backstabbing and violence of The Sopranos, all of the sex of Californication, and as many people covered in dirt as Deadwood, you should probably come down to Slackers and order the first season of Game of Thrones on Blu-ray or DVD today. Even if you’re not looking for a new show to watch, you still need to check this one out. I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but it really is as good as the book.